Mississippi River levels are dropping, threatening to negatively impact river shipping traffic and, therefore, the economy, eventually. Barges carry everything from grain and fertilizer to coal and fuel.
Along the upper Mississippi River, including all of the portion that borders northeast Iowa, barge traffic is flowing just fine. The concern is on the Mississippi River near St. Louis and downriver from there. However, the impact that dropping river levels could have to barge traffic could ultimately impact the entire nation.
Last week, the US Army Corps of Engineers reduced the flow of the Missouri River in order to preserve its upper basin, due to a low water supply from the drought.
When the reduced flow meets the Mississippi River, which too is low from the drought, the result will mean even lower Mississippi River levels leading all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Mark Wagner is the education director at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque.
"A lot of the grain shipments originate along the upper Mississippi River," Wagner said, "anywhere from Minneapolis right down to the Dubuque area and even further south into the Quad Cities, and some of those grain shipments, then, cannot make it all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico."
Slowed or even halted barge traffic in the near future could mean congestion elsewhere.
On the Mississippi River, the standard - especially in the upper portion - is a 15-barge tow. According to the Iowa Department of Transportation, the tonnage that can carry is equivalent to the load of two 100-car trains or 870 large semi trucks.
"Yeah, it'll effect the highway systems and everything, and, of course, it's more cost efficient to move by river because it just takes less fuel than it does for train or for vehicle," Wagner said.
Lt. Colin Fogarty is a spokesperson for US Coast Guard, which is the agency that has the authority to shut down any portion of America's rivers. He said Friday afternoon that there are no plans yet to close any part of the river.
Even though barge traffic has not halted anywhere yet, barges are still carrying loads that are below capacity. As the main channel of the Mississippi River at St. Louis and downriver grows increasingly shallow, barges have to carry less cargo to lighten their weight and sit higher in the water.
Fogarty said the last resort is to close any section of the river off completely. Before that point, however, the US Coast Guard can utilize measure that include limited the width of a barge tow or imposing one-way barge traffic along particularly shallow portions of the Mississippi.
The fix to this problem, Fogarty said, would be a lot of steady precipitation, but both he and KWWL chief meteorologist Mark Schnackenberg said the long-range forecast doesn't hold much hope for that.
To see the Iowa DOT's cargo capacity comparison chart, click HERE.
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